Behind the lines of Kyiv’s territorial defence force

Click to play video: 'Protecting Kyiv: Inside Ukraine’s Territorial Defence Forces'
Protecting Kyiv: Inside Ukraine’s Territorial Defence Forces
WATCH: Ordinary Ukrainian citizens – many of whom have no military training – have volunteered by the tens of thousands to take up arms and protect their homeland. For The New Reality, Krista Hessey takes us inside Kyiv’s Territorial Defence Forces, which are a key part of the defence ecosystem for Ukraine. We meet some of the people providing critical security during the war, including a former prime minister, now armed and ready to do what it takes to defend Ukraine – Apr 2, 2022

A group of men shuffle into an auditorium in Kyiv. Six weeks ago, the space may have been used for a lecture or dance recital, but today it’s where new recruits of the city’s territorial defence are learning the ways of war.

The territorial defence is made up of volunteers. Some have previous military training, but many do not. They are businessmen, artists and students who — overnight — have become soldiers. While the country’s military fights Russian forces in the east and south, common civilians have taken up arms to protect their homes.

“Let me remind you of the mission of our battalion,” the instructor barks from the front of the room. “For the military: we are protecting their backs, their rear lands. For the civilians: we protect them with our chests. They are behind us.”

New recruits gather in an auditorium for training. Olena Lypovenko stands at the front. Global News

Over the course of three days, the new recruits will learn how to use a gun, basic military manoeuvres and how to identify Russian saboteurs. The training is fast, but it has to be this way because of the sheer number of people who have signed up to fight. According to the National Guard, 100,000 Ukrainians have enlisted, making Ukraine’s military one of the largest in Europe.

People like Olena Lypovenko, 27, who have military experience are the backbone of the territorial defence. Before the war, she was a police officer and had been a member of the National Guard. These days, she helps run the three-day training course.


“Now anyone can enroll, even people with no previous experience who never held weapons in their hands,” Lypovenko says.

She first enlisted in the National Guard when she was only 19 years old. It was 2014. Russia had annexed Crimea and fighting broke out between Ukrainian and Russian proxies in the east.

Members of Kyiv’s territorial defense wait for a bus to arrive. Global News

“I realized that, sooner or later, the war that was happening in that territory would affect the whole country,” she says.

She and other members of Kyiv’s territorial defence patrol the streets, man checkpoints and guard critical buildings. The rotations are gruelling — two hours on, two hours off for days at a time — but important work. These volunteers are the last line of defence should Russian forces attack the capital.

“Normal work is paralyzed. So you only have two options now: you either work as a volunteer or you defend your country. So I chose the second option, to defend the country,” says Ruslan Yarmoliuk, a member of the territorial defence.

Yarmoliuk worked as a TV journalist prior to the war, and had covered conflicts in various hot spots over the course of his career — Georgia, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan — but he never thought he would cover a war in his home country.

Ruslan instructs his fellow soldiers on how to survive a Grad missile attack. Global News

“I want my kids to grow up in an independent Ukraine, in a free Ukraine, not in the Russian Federation,” Yarmoliuk says.

The formal creation of the territorial defence took place before Russian soldiers stepped foot on Ukrainian soil. It happened months before, when thousands of troops were camped out along the border. Ukrainian parliament passed legislation at the end of 2021 that made the territorial defence a standalone branch of the country’s armed forces as of the new year. At the time, it was thought that a Russian invasion wouldn’t happen for months, giving them time to prepare the new “weekend warriors,” but Russian President Vladimir Putin had other plans.

This is the biggest mobilization of civilian fighters since the Second World War, says Andrew Rasiulis, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and the former head of eastern European policy for the Department of National Defence.

“The situation in Ukraine is quite unique,” he says.

Members of the territorial defence in Kyiv. Global News

Anyone aged 18 to 60 can enlist. There’s no formal military conscription happening in Ukraine, but men of this age bracket are barred from leaving the country. So many people have signed up for the new force that there are often not enough weapons to go around and those with experience get priority.

Oleksiy Honcharuk enlisted in the territorial defence in Kyiv in the first few days of the war when it was thought an invasion of the capital was imminent. He’s not a weapons guy, he says, but he was prepared to fight.

“We took a gun and we decided to be as prepared as possible to meet (the Russians) on the streets of our city,” Honcharuk says.

That firefight never happened, but Honcharuk still carries his Kalashnikov around with him.

An aerial surveillance operation in a secret location in the capital. Global News

Honcharuk isn’t the typical volunteer. He’s a former Ukrainian prime minister, the youngest ever to have the job.


Today, he’s not on the front lines, but he’s helping his fellow soldiers in another way: aerial surveillance. We gained rare access to the operation’s nerve centre, where they monitor aerial activity and work to outwit the Russians. He and a small team work day and night in a dark room analyzing the material that will then be passed on to various branches of the armed forces.

“We need to fight an enemy, to control their movements and to make sure that we understand their logic, their tactics and strategy,” says Honcharuk.

He’s confident that the capital will not be captured. It’s been five weeks since the invasion began, and Russia has failed to capture any major city. But relentless airstrikes and artillery attacks have left many, like Kharkiv and Mariupol, in ruin.

An apartment building on the outskirts of Kyiv was bombed on March 14, 2022. Global News

“This is an immense threat for us,” he says. “They can’t take control over Kyiv, but they can destroy a huge part of it.”

The future of the capital still remains uncertain. Only a day after Moscow pledged to scale back military operations around Kyiv, Russian forces bombed neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the city. Despite that, the mood on the street is optimistic. Ukrainian forces have won strategic victories in recent weeks and continue to impress military observers in the West with their prowess and determination.

“Kyiv is a symbol, a very important symbol,” Honcharuk says. “But the real value of Ukraine is the people. The Ukrainian people.”